Belle Isle Birding

Belle Isle sits in the Detroit River, between the City of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The 300+ acres of old growth swamp woods on the eastern end of the island, and the surrounding waters of the Detroit River, make it the top birdwatching location in this largely urban area.

To open a PDF version of a bird checklist for the island that I have compiled, and will update regularly, click on the link below. Please post any additions and corrections, which are always welcome, in the Comments field at the bottom of this page.

Belle Isle Bird Checklist
(Updated January 31, 2020)

Recent bird sightings from Belle Isle that have been entered in eBird can be viewed by looking at the two "hotspots" established for the island, one for the whole island and one for the Nature Zoo and vicinity. To view recent bird sightings from these two hotspots, click the links below and scroll down to "Recent Visits":

Belle Isle eBird hotspot - General

Belle Isle eBird hotspot - Nature Zoo

During 2005, I conducted extensive bird surveys on Belle Isle that were funded by DTE Energy. To open a PDF version of that report, click on the link below.

Belle Isle Bird Survey Report - 2005

In 2007, BirdWatching magazine published a short article I wrote on birding Belle Isle for their series, Hotspots Near You. To read this short article, click on the link below.

BirdWatching magazine Hotspots Near You #13 - Belle Isle

This is a Birder's Map that I prepared in 2005. A larger, printable PDF version is available by clicking the link below the map. It will be a helpful reference when reading the information about Birding on Belle Isle below.

Click here for a printable version of this map
Birding on Belle Isle is best during spring migration (March-May) and fall migration (August-November), with good birding also during the winter (December-February). During summer (June-July), birding can be difficult because access to many areas is limited due to setup and takedown activities for the Grand Prix and the Hydroplane Races on the Detroit River. So far, breeding evidence has been noted for 55 species, most of them from the woodland and nearby areas on the eastern end of the island.

Waterfowl viewing on Belle Isle is best from November through April, with winter ice conditions sometimes shutting down all waterbird activity from December to February. There is only one way to get onto the island, via the Belle Isle Bridge. The best route for viewing waterfowl is to stay to the right once on the island, and follow the one-way perimeter road all the way around the island, stopping wherever there are birds to see. Sunset Point on the western tip of the island is one of the better places to see some of the less common species of duck, including scoters and Long-tailed Ducks. Sometimes it is worth parking and walking out to the point, and a telescope can be helpful. Loons and grebes are often seen from here as well. The large patch of water inside the Scott Fountain is also attractive to waterfowl when it isn't frozen over. It is sometimes a good place to see good numbers of Hooded Mergansers and Ruddy Ducks, with several other species present at times. On the rare occasions when this pond is drained for cleaning, it has been a good place for shorebirds, which have little habitat on the island in most years.

Along the south shore of the island, it is often worth a stop at the parking area just past the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. In winter, even when there is a lot of ice, this is a good place to view gulls which often includes Great Black-backed, and sometimes Iceland, Glaucous, and Lesser Black-backed gulls. This side of the island is typically best for some duck species like Bufflehead and Common Merganser. A short distance to the east, the Athletic Fields can have flocks of geese and on occasion more unusual species can be mixed in like Cackling, Snow, and Greater White-fronted. Near the southeastern-most end of the island, the South Fishing Pier is another good overlook for river ducks and gulls, with the nearby Coast Guard Station one of the best places on the island for seeing Bonaparte's Gulls in late fall. On the north side of the road, Lake Okonoka is a good place to see Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, and prior to the construction project there Black-crowned Night-Herons roosted in trees adjacent to the channel well into November.

After the road turns north, it is always worth a stop at Blue Heron Lagoon if it is not frozen. This body of water is used by Canvasbacks, Redheads, and Ring-necked Ducks in good numbers as a resting location where they can sleep in peace without the disturbances on the Detroit River from boat traffic. But there is little or no food sources for them on the Lagoon, so they do occasionally need to fly out to the river to feed, until freeze-up forces them out of the region. As the road reaches its northeastern-most point, it turns west with Lake Muskoday on the left. This is another good body of water to look for Hooded Mergansers, Ruddy Ducks, and Ring-necked Ducks, as well as Pied-billed Grebes during migration, but not in winter. Continuing west, it has historically been worth stopping adjacent to the narrow channel across from the Detroit Yacht Club. Usually, there are just a few Mallards and Canada Geese here, but occasionally they will be joined by another species or two, which provides excellent opportunities for close-up views and photography. A recent addition of a kayak launch has increased human activity in this area, making it less attractive to the more shy duck species.

A bit farther west, stop at the parking lot for the Water Slide. This is the widest and deepest part of the Detroit River adjacent to Belle Isle, and is a good place for Common Goldeneyes, Bufflehead, Common Mergansers, and Tundra Swans. It is also one of the better spots on the island for viewing migrant Common Loons and Horned Grebes. When there is ice present, there are often lots of gulls here including the species that can be seen near the Dossin Museum on the south side of the island. The sandy beach here is the only beach on the island, and should be checked for migrant shorebirds (May-June, and July-September) when there are no people present. The last essential stop on a waterfowl loop is the North Fishing Pier, which is about half way between the Water Slide and the Belle Isle Bridge. Jutting northward into the Detroit River, this is often the most brutally cold spot on the island in winter. But there is often a good bunch of waterfowl huddled near the base of this pier, which can include all three mergansers, Gadwall, American Black Ducks, American Wigeon, and American Coots. Walking out to the end of the pier, if you're hardy enough, can provide closer views of Common Loons, Horned Grebes, Common Goldeneyes, and Buffleheads.

During Spring and Fall migrations, in addition to some of the waterfowl mentioned above, the woodland and adjacent areas on the eastern end of the island can be excellent for songbird migration, occasionally rivaling other better known sites like Point Pelee and Magee Marsh, but without the crowds. A good place to start is the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which has bird feeders that attract the common resident species on the island year-round, and a few migrants turn up in spring and fall. Behind the building there is a network of somewhat confusing, and often muddy paths through some swamp woods and a small patch of marsh that can hold species like Marsh Wren, Swamp Sparrows, Common Yellowthroats, and rarely Virginia Rail.

From the Nature Zoo parking lot, a good 2.3 mile loop can be walked or driven along roads (be careful and watch for cars) by going west along Oakway Trail to a short cutoff south toward the old zoo, and continuing back east along Central Avenue. Before reaching the perimeter road, there is a narrow path that goes north and connects to Oakway Trail, which can be a nice option to get off the road for a bit, and track down some of the shier and more skulky species.

Nashua Creek runs from Lake Takoma on the southwestern side of the island to Lake Okonoka on the southeastern side. There is a trail that runs along both the north and south side of this creek, a nice 1 mile loop walk through some very productive woodland for migratory songbirds. There are two access points, one at the eastern end along Woodside Drive, and one at the western end south of the old zoo and adjacent to the "tennis courts". As of this writing, there is construction along Woodside Drive that has limited or prevented access there, so the main entry is at the east end. There are two ways to reach this parking area. First, you can bear left after crossing the Belle Isle Bridge onto Central Avenue. From there, turn right onto Inselruhe Drive (at a small roundabout with a bronze statue of a general on a horse), then left onto Loiter Way. Just after Loiter Way veers right onto Vista Way, you will see the parking area. The second way to access this parking area is to take the main outer perimeter road counter-clockwise past the fountain and just past the Athletic Field where you can turn left onto Vista Way.

During April, this very special (and botanically rare) swamp woods can be filled with Hermit Thrushes, Lincoln's, Fox, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows, Winter Wrens, Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warblers. In May, the migration floodgates open, and it is possible to see 100 species in a day here, including thrushes, sparrows, flycatchers, vireos, cuckoos, and more than 20 species of warbler. In fall migration, September is comparable to May and October is comparable to April, as migrants head back south in much greater numbers that are enhanced by young fledged during the summer in Canada's boreal forests.

From the parking lot at the southwestern corner of Blue Heron Lagoon, it can be productive to walk the path heading east along the south side of the lagoon to the Lighthouse. From there, the path turns north and then goes west along the north shore of the lagoon where it ends at a fence bordering the golf course. From here you must backtrack to return to the parking area. Some (including me) might have some safety concerns about walking back in a cul-de-sac, and I have encouraged anyone who would listen to continue this trail back out to the road, to make a complete loop out of it. The shrubbery along the shores of the lagoon can be very productive for migrant sparrows, warblers, thrushes, and wrens. I had my best view ever of a Connecticut Warbler on the north shore of the lagoon. The grassy area adjacent to the lighthouse is a good place to find Savannah Sparrows especially since their other stronghold on the island adjacent to the Casino was paved over by the Grand Prix organizers. Also near the lighthouse you might see Eastern Meadowlarks and Bobolinks in migration.

My first visit to Belle Isle is captured in the photo below. It was in July 1963, and I am on the left in the photo, with my mother, and younger brother and sister. We moved to Michigan from Wisconsin in 1962, when I was 5 years old, so I didn't get to Belle Isle until I was 6 years old. I didn't become a "birder" until I was 11 years old.

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